Brutalism – The Violence at the Core of ‘Migration Governance’

Volker M. Heins

‘Global governance of migration’ is the name of one of the policy research fields at the Centre, which until now was headed by myself. To be honest, I always thought this to be a misnomer. One reason is that the term ‘governance’ usually refers to public policy problems in need of cooperative solutions. But is migration a ‘problem’? It is certainly a problem from the perspective of those who want to contain and control migratory movements, for whatever reason. However, migrants themselves do not see their movement to (hopefully) better places as a problem, but as the solution to many of their problems, in particular if going abroad means leaving war, persecution and poverty behind.

Of course, states make it difficult, dangerous or even impossible for many people on the move to reach their desired destinations. With the introduction of passports, border controls and ideologies of sovereign peoplehood and national identity, modern states from the nineteenth century onwards singled out migrants as sources of instability, insecurity and moral or racial ‘pollution’. In this sense, they invented the problem of migration and, as a consequence, began to make life harder for migrants. Not for all migrants, though. Mobility is a consistently cherished value in modern capitalism, but mobility rights are distributed unevenly across the global population.

Because they distinguish and separate people according to differential mobility rights, contemporary border regimes have been called ‘sorting machines’ (Mau 2022). Legal scholar Tendayi Achiume goes one step further by arguing that until today the most important, if unofficial, sorting criterion is race. According to her, national and regional borders are inherently racial and tend to privilege ‘whiteness’ in global mobility (Achiume 2022). As instruments for policing the movement of people, these borders are not primarily geographical demarcations, but complex machineries reaching deep into domestic and foreign territories. The perhaps most effective institution for limiting freedom of movement are Western visa regimes, conceived after the end of formal European imperialism. Empirical research shows that while visa regimes have been liberalized in recent decades, in particular within the expanding European Union, including countries linked to the EU through association agreements, they have become much more restrictive, especially for African citizens who intent to travel to Europe (Beauchemin, Flahaux and Schoumaker 2020). Europe is being converted into something like a gated community designed to drive off unwelcome newcomers.


Borders and brutalism

‘Migration governance’ is a misnomer because migration is not self-evidently a ‘problem’ to be solved by global cooperation. It is a questionable term also for another reason: Following political scientist Renate Mayntz, Claus Offe has argued already some years ago that the concept of ‘governance’ is part of a ‘harmonizing rhetoric’ which suggests that politics is first and foremost about solving problems, not about gaining or maintaining power (Offe 2009: 557). This, however, is not only generally misleading but, especially in the field of migration and border studies, obscures one of the most significant aspects of migration control, which is the massive violence exercised by state and non-state actors against unwelcome people on the move. Sometimes this violence is spectacular and highly visible. Think of the situation in June 2022 when at least 23 African migrants and refugees were killed in an attempt to climb the iron fence that separates Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla in northern Africa. More often the violence is mundane and hidden from the public eye, partly because journalists are often barred from entering critical borderlands such as the so-called ‘red zone’ along the Polish-Belarusian border.

Whoever is not prepared to talk about anti-migrant violence should also remain silent about ‘migration governance’. The role of violence in migration and border control has been neglected from Stephen Castles to Steffen Mau, a point that has been made forcefully by Ranabir Samaddar (2020: 5). Much of migration research focusses on ‘flows’ of people and the ways in which these flows are ‘regulated’. But perhaps it is time to follow Achille Mbembe and take a closer look at the role of material structures, walls, camps, weaponized landscapes and brute ‘matter’ as elements of migration control. In his most recent book, he speaks about a pervasive process he calls ‘borderization’ (frontiérisation) and the spread of sedentarizing institutions – institutions built to make people stay put (Mbembe 2020).

A small but emblematic example of this regime of ‘brutalism’ are the Latino migrants who were detained by US Border Patrol officers after crossing into Arizona and kept in freezing cells nicknamed ‘iceboxes’, las hieleras. There are reports and photos online of shivering people crowded into these tiny rooms without mattresses and access to medical or legal assistance. For several years now, human rights groups such as the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) in Europe or researchers such as Itamar Mann at the University of Haifa are collecting evidence of human rights violations and other crimes committed against migrants in border regions and detention centres: cases of failure to provide assistance, assault, extortion, kidnapping, rape, robbery, beatings and killings. Sadly, along with the ‘Missing Migrants Project’ run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) since 2014, ‘border deaths’ and ‘border crimes’ have become expanding new interdisciplinary research areas (Cuttitta and Last 2020; Mann 2021).


Internalizing borders

Global governance of migration is a euphemism for the ‘universal form that dominates migration management [which] is colonial in its constitution, global in its reach, technologically advanced in its control, dehumanising in its implementation, and oppressive in its essence’ (Kalir 2019: 409). There is not much to add to this, except perhaps that we have reason to believe that the violence inflicted on migrants will also affect liberal societies as such. If migrants are not safe, neither are those who live ‘behind walls’ (Heins and Wolff 2023).

The return to borders as alleged safeguards of liberal sovereignty implies their material fortification, the employment of biometric databases, militarized border police, the forced immobilization in camps and the criminalization of humanitarian activities and organizations. With the hardening of borders, violence becomes an integral part of policing the mobility of populations on a worldwide scale. As border violence reportedly abounds, it becomes evident – in Europe particularly – that the new border policies conflict with liberal norms, international law and humanitarian values which constitute the historical and normative bases of the democratic nation state. Next year, together with Sabine Hess, Dana Schmalz, Frank Wolff and a group of international fellows, I will begin working on a research project that explores the normative and social consequences of the fortification and closing of borders for the states and societies engaged in these processes. Key questions that we will seek answers to are: How do hardened borders and border violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors eat into the legal, moral and social fabric of democratic societies, undermining the very norms on which the latter rest? How can we conceptualize the normative and social consequences of violent bordering practices? And how can we overcome racial borders and oppressive mobility regimes, including our life behind walls?



Achiume, E. Tendayi (2022). ‘Racial Borders’, The Georgetown Law Journal, 110(3): 445–508, available at: (accessed 1 December 2022).

Beauchemin, Cris, Flahaux, Marie-Laurence and Schoumaker, Bruno (2020). ‘Three Sub-Saharan Migration Systems in Times of Policy Restriction’, Comparative Migration Studies, 8(19): 1–27, available at: (accessed 1 December 2022).

Cuttitta, Paolo and Last, Tamara (2020) (eds). Border Deaths: Causes, Dynamics and Consequences of Migration-related Mortality, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, available at: (accessed 1 December 2022).

Heins, Volker M. and Wolff, Frank (2023). Hinter Mauern: Geschlossene Grenzen als Gefahr für die offene Gesellschaft, Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Kalir, Barak (2019). ‘On the Universal and the Particular in Studying Oppressive Mobility Regimes’, International Journal of Migration and Border Studies, 5(4): 409–416.

Mann, Itamar (2021). ‘Border Violence as Crime’, University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, 42(3): 675–736, available at: (accessed 1 December 2022).

Mau, Steffen (2022). Sorting Machines: The Reinvention of the Border in the 21st Century, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Mbembe, Achille (2020). Brutalisme, Paris: Éditions La Découverte.

Offe, Claus (2009). ‘Governance: An “Empty Signifier”?’, Constellations, 16(4): 550–562, available at: (accessed 1 December 2022).

Samaddar, Ranabir (2020). The Postcolonial Age of Migration, Abington, UK: Routledge.

About the Author

Volker Michael Heins is Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI) in Essen, Germany. Till the end of 2022, he was a senior researcher at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research as well as a faculty member at the University of Duisburg-Essen. In 2023, he will be one of the convenors of an international research group working on a project at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF), Bielefeld University, titled ‘Internalizing Borders: The Social and Normative Consequences of the European Border Regime’.